Can Coats Quiet Controversy Over Football Team Name?

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Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder says he has started a foundation to help struggling Native American tribes. But it isn't quieting down the controversy about his team's name.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to talk a bit more about football. The owners of Washington's professional football team - the Redskins - have been under intense pressure to change the name, which many people, especially many Native Americans, consider an offensive racial slur. Owner Daniel Snyder has so far refused to budge. Now, though, he has started a charitable foundation to help Native American tribes.

There is controversy about that so we're joined now by Mike Wise, who's been covering this. He's a columnist at The Washington Post. Thank you so much for joining us.

MIKE WISE: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell about the new foundation and how it was announced. It's interesting - I just want to mention for people who are interested - we did reach out to Mr. Snyder and members of his organization, and they declined to have anyone from the organization join our conversation.

WISE: Yeah, the organization is called the Original Americans Foundation. The notion was that - well, everybody knows why he went to Indian country the last four months. His name was under an assault; his brand was under an assault. And this is a charter member of the NFL. I think he wanted to make sure that he found out from the people that actually had the biggest stake in this, what was going on.

In those four months of trips - which include about 26 - he and his people have decided to open up a foundation that has already included giving a backhoe to a tribe in Omaha, and also 3,000 coats. And he promises more charitable donations, and he's actually put a person in charge of this fundraiser.

MARTIN: So he says that he and some representatives visited - I don't know that he visited all of the tribes - but that he and members of his organization visited 26 tribes - there are more than 500 enrolled tribes in the United States...

WISE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...But he visited 26 tribes in Indian country. And from the letter that - he posted a lengthy letter on the Redskins website about this, saying that there are Native Americans everywhere that 100 percent support the name. He's quoting here the chair of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, and he says that this is what she told him when he came to visit her tribe, and quotes her further as saying: I believe God has turned this around for something good. And he said that - she told me it was far more important for us to focus on the challenges of education in Native American communities.

But you, in your reporting, got a number of other perspectives. What were those?

WISE: Well, the most - I guess - strong of which were mothers of Native American children who belong to a group, an online-formed group called Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry. And these are basically mothers and fathers of children who feel like there's a lot of self-esteem issues involved in it, and that their identity has been co-opted and stolen. And they echo - I don't want to say that Dan Snyder is just on the wrong side of history, but they've echoed every civil rights organization in this country. Every Native American organization in this country has come out against the name. There is nobody standing pat.

Now, there may be a divide on some of the reservations. But the divide, in my experience - in going to the Crow Agency in Montana, the Pine Ridge; every reservation I've been to in the last seven years - the divide isn't, we want this name and we're proud of it versus this is insulting and it messes with the self-esteem of our children. No, it's we don't want this name and well, we don't really care.

MARTIN: We don't really care.

WISE: We don't really care.

MARTIN: It's not a...

WISE: And I think that's a much different argument. There are no protests going on or keep-the-mascot petitions circulating in America among Native Americans, right now.

MARTIN: We only have about a minute left. What is your sense of whether this changes the dynamic of the debate at all? I don't know, did he put a dollar figure to the level of contributions that he's planning to make here...

WISE: No.

MARTIN: ...But the letter seemed very heartfelt about what he understood about the conditions in many of these communities. Does this change the debate, in your view?

WISE: I think it's another slap in the face to people who want the name gone, and I think it emboldens them more in many ways.

MARTIN: Why? Why do you say that?

WISE: I think they feel like this is essentially a rich man buying a poor people's silence. And as one of the mothers told me very candidly: The idea that we're supposed to choose between accepting funding that we need, and our own identity, is wrong.

MARTIN: Mike Wise is a columnist for The Washington Post. Clearly, this is a very rich and emotional topic. And we'll continue to follow it, as will you. Thank you for joining us today.

WISE: Thank you.

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